Morning Worship: Leon: Difference between discerning, blind obedience

“It has always seemed unfair to me that we Christians read the story of the sacrifice of Isaac from a Christo-centric viewpoint. It is a Jewish story — not written for Christians. There is something in it that is beyond a Christo-centric message,” the Rev. Luis León said during his sermon, “Discerning Obedience” during the 9:15 a.m. morning worship service Monday.

His Scripture text was Genesis 22:1-14.

León said that he had been instructed to read and apply the story of Isaac with a Christo-centric viewpoint.

“I was taught that Isaac was a type of Christ figure who escaped death. Jesus was always the ram in the thicket,” he said. The story moves from being a symbol of deliverance for a persecuted people, to an allegorical story to a prototype of Christ’s death on the cross.

“In Munich, I saw Rembrandt’s painting ‘The Sacrifice of Isaac,’ and I remember the look on the angel’s face as it grabs Abraham’s arm. Then in Florence, I saw Caravaggio’s painting with the son’s head on a rock and the panic on his face — ‘What’s gone wrong with this picture,’ the son seems to be saying,” León said. “If this were happening today, Abraham would be in jail or a psych ward.”

The pastor asked the congregation how they might look at the story from a different viewpoint. He said that Hebrew scholar Laurence Kant has written that God was not testing Abraham’s obedience but his capacity to argue with God. Abraham’s obedience, León said, was a kind of victimhood that leads to a dysfunctional way of life.

“We have a lot of challenges in life, “ he said. “At issue is our response — what kind of obedience are we going to practice? Obedience is a value and a discipline. When we have obedience with trust we can live in harmony with God. If we have obedience rooted in fear, then we end up with rejection, conflict and strife; we simply survive. What kind of obedience will we practice — discerning obedience or blind obedience?”

León said that discerning obedience is a legitimate religious value “where we trust when we can’t understand. Blind obedience doesn’t understand at all. Laurence Kant said that God expected Abraham to have doubts and to argue, to have a dialogical relationship with God. We have to raise questions for a deeper faith, to think for ourselves and then accept, to have  intimacy with trust.”

He continued, “I can’t understand blind obedience. The military people in my congregation have told me that they do not expect blind obedience like was on trial at Nuremberg and My Lai. We are at the 100th anniversary of the beginning of World War I, and I can’t understand the blind obedience that would cause people to run across the open ground between trenches. It creates a certainty that is damaging to all.”

León, whose congregation often includes the president of the United States, said that some remarks he made in an Easter sermon had gotten blown out of proportion by the press after President Barack Obama attended the service.

“By Monday, my assistant told me not to read the emails in response to reports on Fox News and Rush Limbaugh,” he said. “The news people took one line and did not listen to the whole thing or wait until it was posted on our website on Wednesday.

“The emails crashed our system for three days but every email was identical,” León continued. “There was no dialogue. This is a kind of blind obedience and it gets us all in trouble.”

Abraham, he said, acted out of blind obedience. There was no self-sacrifice.

“I can see no merit or theological value in that posture,” León added. “In examining our relationship with God, what kind of obedience will we manifest — blind obedience or discerning obedience?”

León reflected on the consequences of the story.

“God never spoke directly to Abraham again,” he said. “I think it is because God could not anticipate what he would do. Second, Isaac doesn’t come back with his father. And third, I wonder what Sarah was thinking. What kind of obedience will you make manifest? It is up to you.”

The Rev. Robert M. Franklin presided. The Rev. Carmen L. Perry, pastor at Hurlbut Memorial Community United Methodist Church on the grounds, read the Scripture. The Motet Choir sang “Come, Thou Fount of Every Blessing” with text by Robert Robinson, tune attributed to Asahel Nettleton and setting by Frank Pesci. The John William Tyrrell Endowment for Religion and the J. Everett Hall Memorial Chaplaincy provide support for this week’s services.